Now, Putin's rumored third term looks set to become the central issue of another key vote -- the ballot for the State Duma in December 2007.
Sergei Mironov -- the freshly reelected speaker of the Federation Council and the leader of the young pro-Kremlin party A Just Russia -- suggested in late March that the Russian Constitution be amended to extend the president's time in office from two to three consecutive terms.
He also proposed that the length of each term be increased to between five and seven years. "Four years is a very short term for Russia," he said. A third term for Putin, he added, "is the desire of millions of Russians and should be discussed publicly."
Mironov was among the first to advance the idea of a third presidential term, first raising the notion in 2001 and repeating it on an almost annual basis. After Putin's reelection in 2004, a handful of other federal and regional lawmakers began to back a third-term constitutional amendment as well.
Putin himself, however, has repeatedly rejected the notion, saying he is opposed in principle to altering the constitution on issues related to the presidential term of office.
Happy In His Job
Presidential protestations notwithstanding, Putin has often left room for ambiguity. He has noted several times that he "likes his job very much," leaving the impression that it is only the constitution, rigid and humorless, that is preventing him from having more fun.
In a February interview with Al-Jazeera television, Putin noted that it was not only the people of Russia who want him to stay, but also "several" unnamed Arab and European leaders.
Supporters and opponents alike appear to believe that Putin will nonetheless vacate his post after the 2008 election. So Mironov's proposal, so far, has met with a polite no-thanks from the presidential office. Many experts, additionally, say it is simply too late in the game to alter the constitution in time for the presidential vote.
But Mironov's proposal still has legs. It has raised a flurry of debate among Russia's media and political elite. And there are good reasons for that.
First, Mironov has suggested a specific mechanism for getting it done. Second, he has urged that the issue become a topic of national debate during the Duma election campaign. The council speaker says he has already begun to send letters to regional legislatures encouraging them to discuss the issue.
Third, his proposal reflects the intense battle currently under way between two key political factions. On the one side, there's the "third-term party" faction represented by Mironov and like-minded allies. On the other, there are third-term opponents who have rallied behind a potential Putin successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
By urging the third-term issue onto center stage, Mironov may be hoping to use the extraordinary popularity of the Russian president to catapult A Just Russia into a leading position in the December Duma elections. Putin's personal approval ratings currently stand at near 80 percent; a 2006 poll indicated 59 percent of Russians favored keeping the president in office for a third term.
How To Keep Putin In
In order to change the constitution, which currently limits the president to two consecutive four-year terms, two-thirds of the Duma and three-fourths of the Federation Council must approve the amendment -- as does two-thirds of the country's regional legislatures.
The legislative dominance of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party could easily ensure the amendment's approval, although party leader and Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, among others, for now remains publicly opposed to the constitutional changes. But assuming the proposal gets full legislative support, the process of amending the constitution, Mironov says, can begin as late as November and be concluded long before the March 2008 presidential vote.
Yury Sharandin, the head of the Federation Council's Constitutional Law Committee, says an eleventh-hour amendment is legal and applicable to the forthcoming election as long as it is completed before the date of the election is officially codified.
While Russia's Central Election Commission has already announced the date of the presidential election as March 2, 2008, the council has yet to officially confirm the timing. Until it does, Sharandin said, there is time to initiate and adopt Mironov's proposed amendment. However, he added, it would be impossible to extend the length of the presidential term to five, six, or seven years in a way that would affect Putin. That change would only be applicable to subsequent presidents.
Ironically, amendment procedures can allow Putin to continue until the bitter end his public opposition to a third term. The Russian Constitution gives the president no veto power over proposed amendments.
Who's For And Who's Against?
Until now, the opponents of the "third-term party" have comprised Putin's most ardent followers, along with Unified Russia. Party leader Gryzlov has denounced Mironov's proposal as an "electoral PR trick." Vladimir Churov, the newly elected chairman of the Central Election Commission -- and a longtime Putin acquaintance -- told ""Kommersant"" on April 9 that a third term "looks impossible."
He added the enormous workload of the past eight years have "forced" Putin to think about leaving office. "I trust him as a man who means and does what he says," Churov said.
Gleb Pavlovsky, an adviser to Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Sobyanin, likewise told "Moskovsky komsomolets" that barring a major world conflict, Putin will not stay on for a third term. He scoffed, however, at the idea that Putin will leave politics altogether, saying -- without elaboration -- the president will assume the role of "father of the nation" and arbiter between the political elite upon his departure from the Kremlin.
There appear to be ranks within Unified Russia that support the idea of the third term. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov noted there are no two-term limits for heads of government in Britain or Germany, or heads of state in France. "Why should we model ourselves on a dubious American democracy that has existed for only 250 years?" he asked.
The Duma's first deputy speaker, Lyubov Sliska -- an influential member of Unified Russia -- likewise backs Mironov's proposal. So do newly inaugurated Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, Deputy Justice Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov, and other federal and regional politicians from Unified Russia.
Writing on the "Yezhednevny zhurnal" website on April 9, political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky said the current debate over the third term should be taken seriously as a logical extension of long-standing regimes in the Russian regions.
He cites, among others, Oryol Oblast Governor Yegor Stroyev, Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev, Bashkir President Murtaza Rakhimov, and the governors of Novgorod, Omsk, Samara, Sverdlovsk, Tomsk, Khabarovsk, Chelyabinsk, and Yaroslavl oblasts -- all of whom have been in power for at least 16 years.
"The unlimited term system of power has already been operational for a long time," Radzikhovsky said.
Democracy In Russia
Demonstrators in Moscow carry a coffin with a television in it to protest government control over broadcasting (TASS file photo)
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